Beautifully written, wildly imaginative and surprisingly emotional.
Pen's life is all about secrets: the secret of the city's spirits, deities and monsters her best friend Beth discovered, living just beyond the notice of modern Londoners; the secret of how she got the intricate scars that disfigure her so cruelly - and the most closely guarded secret of all: Parva, her mirror-sister, forged from her reflections in a school bathroom mirror. Pen's reflected twin is the only girl who really understands her.
Then Parva is abducted and Pen makes a terrible bargain for the means to track her down. In London-Under-Glass, looks are currency, and Pen's scars make her a rare and valuable commodity. But some in the reflected city will do anything to keep Pen from the secret of what happened to the sister who shared her face.
In The City’s Son author Tom Pollock introduced the world to his London, a place where creatures as magical and savage as his seemingly endless imagination could conjure ruled the streets and everything beneath. It was a London of layers, where everything was something other than what it appeared and ignorance got you killed in a heartbeat. It’s within this world that the Mirrorstocracy reside, a race of people living in London’s mirrors and a place known as London-Under-Glass.
Our adventures in The Glass Republic are experienced this time not through The City’s Son’s protagonist Beth, but through her best friend Pen - or Parva ‘Pencil’ Khan. Here Pen’s mirror-sister, a version of herself living in the reflected London, goes missing, causing Pen to make a dangerous deal with the unforgiving Chemical Synod allowing her to pass into London-Under-Glass and find her.
What transpires is a perilous adventure of confused identities and power struggles based in a world dominated by image. The delicate social and political status of this mirrored London is presented with the author’s usual flare and attention to detail that makes it a real pleasure to uncover along with Pen. The divide between mirrorborn and naturalborn mirrorstocracy sees the former born with full, symmetrical faces while the latter possess only half a face, marking them as social outcasts. Many of the naturalborns choose to undergo drastic procedures to have the blank half of their face filled in - but it’s at a desperate price. From there, residents of both origins pay to have artificial freckles, eyebrows or scars put onto their face to avoid the dreaded stigma of symmetry inherent in their society.
With so much of the book concentrating on the class clashes between the city’s inhabitants, this instalment does lack the variety of characters boasted in its predecessor. While we’re treated to visitations with Johnny Naptha and his chemical brothers, the Masonry Men, the Pavement Priests and Gutterglass, outside the various races of the mirrorstocracy it does feel slightly sparse in terms of new creatures. That said, what Pollock does provide is appropriately impressive. Beth’s gas-infused sewermander proves a vibrant and energetic sidekick, while the city’s weather patterns take on a personality of their own and supply some of the most memorable scenes in the book. The real icing on the reflected cake however is the terrifying mirrormounts (reminiscent of the Nazgûl steeds), who prove a disturbingly unsettling presence throughout and are revealed in their true glory towards the end of the book.
But where Pollock really excels is in his ability to instil fear. The idea of the mirrorstocracy’s half-faces living with a latent consciousness (their id) within them that can be awoken on cue and kill them from inside is petrifying. The depiction of these deaths, along with the psychological connotations surrounding our suppressed desires is equally scary, while the concept as a whole effortlessly engages with both younger and older readers.
The narrative structure in The Glass Republic benefits from the lack of the first person perspective featured in The City’s Son by lending the prose a more consistent feel. Pen’s story does occasionally feel rather unrelenting however and despite Pollock’s attempts to break it up with interjections about Beth, these are mostly inconsequential to the main plot. While far from disagreeable, the book’s supporting character Espel sadly doesn’t come across quite as solidly as she should, seeming more to highlight Pen’s character evolution than mark herself as a standalone character. In addition, the story does on occasion focus too heavily on its politics and could do with more considered structuring - particularly towards the end.
Trying to follow a book that independently set the quality of fantasy higher than any other debut was always going to be a difficult task, and in truth The Glass Republic falls just a hair’s breadth short of matching its prequel’s impressive standard. This however is hardly a criticism of a book that still manages to push the boundaries of imagination and innovation with every page.
Beautifully written, wildly imaginative and surprisingly emotional, The Glass Republic continues an exciting new phase in urban fantasy that’s being powered by one author alone.
Review by Alice Wybrew
8.8/10 from 1 reviews
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